The painter virtually never depicts what happens...
Last February I went to Munich to stay with a friend and his ex-girlfriend. The three of us had been friends when they were still together and we all lived in Madrid, and we had carried on being friends after they split up and the three of us went to live in different places. In the Bavarian drizzle the three of us talked, walked, saw surfers on a manmade wave on the Isar, the city’s fastflowing river, saw Hitler's old headquarters, now an art gallery, and marveled at how easy it becomes to drink enormous weissbeers when everyone else is doing it, even at breakfast. We also went to see an exhibition at the Brandhorst Gallery, called Picasso's Artist's Books.
The Brandhorst has the largest private collection in the world of Cy Twombly's work, my friend's ex told us, including all of his 2001 Venice Biennale piece, Lepanto, which is why we went. But it is the Picasso exhibition that had more of an impact on me, partly because I didn’t know it was going to be there, partly because of my reading since coming back. I came away from Munich, its rain, its solemn postwar architecture, with something of Picasso himself, younger than I’ve ever seen him in photos, beset by laughter – something of the all-out mischief I’ve never really thought about but now know was a main part of his Andalusian childhood.
On our way to the Brandhorst, the three of us talked about my friend’s new girlfriend – precisely as he’d promised he wouldn’t when he’d met me off the plane the day before. The two of them had been having problems since she moved into his flat (in Barcelona) some months before, but the previous few days had been different. She wasn’t very happy about him going to stay with his ex like this. The night before, she had burst out with the admission that she, too, was going to spend the weekend with her ex-boyfriend, in his estância in Aragon. My friend said he didn’t know her ex had an estância. We both thought estâncias were Brazilian. On reflection we decided her mutually unfaithful weekend away probably wasn’t the whole truth. And this is what we decided as well, the three of us, when my friend failed to not bring it up that first morning...
The small-ish exhibition was set in the lower ground floor of the Brandhorst. Having looked around the floor with all the Twombly work, almost as an afterthought we came down an escalator into the pristine, factory-like space, Andy Warhol massive and shock-haired on our right, one of Damien Hirst’s pill cabinets on our left, and entered through a darkened demi-room, like a shorter version of the lightless hallway that preceded Chris Ofili’s Upper Room when it was at Tate Britain – a brief sensory deprivation, a dark sorbet – welcome after those weissbeers! – and then into a lowlit series of rooms. Four or five partitioned rooms, walls dark green enough to be almost black. The illustrated texts were set in glass cabinets centrally and around the sides, and being originals they were off-white or yellowing. The explanatory texts and exhibition notes I remember being edged with red. It was quite busy, but it doesn’t take much to bring out the politeness in your average Bavarian, and the rooms were not brightly lit, making it easy to avoid eye contact, or engagement with anything but the art.
Eighty-five or so artist’s books by Picasso were on display, the range of authors stretching from antiquity (Aristophanes, Ovid, Pindar), to the 19th century (Balzac, Prosper Mérimée, Tolstoy) and into the 20th century, where the emphasis was on contemporary French literature. Picasso’s first illustrations were for poems by André Salmon (1905), soon followed – at the request of his friend, the poet Max Jacob – by Cubist etchings for the books Saint Matorel (1911) and Le Siège de Jérusalem (1914), both published by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. In 1917, 1918 and 1919 further publications by Max Jakob appeared with etchings by Picasso. Over the decades to follow Picasso worked on projects with other authors such as Pierre Reverdy, André Breton, Tristan Tzara, Georges Hugnet, Benjamin Péret, Paul Éluard, René Char, Antonin Artaud and Michel Leiris.
This explanation, however, cribbed from the exhibition notes, is a bit misleading, as, in a way, is the title of the exhibition. Each suggest that Picasso depicted what was in the texts, described or provided some other, link-backable version of them – illustrated them, let’s say. He was never going to just mimic what was happening in them, but my assumption was that he’d at least base his work in some discernible way on the contents; in many, many cases, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. What struck me, time and again, was how loose the correlation between textual content and graphic input was; as it says later in the exhibition notes: ‘the painter virtually never depicts what happens in the text’.
These ranged from the merely figurative – such as the wrapper page of Max Jacob’s Chronique des Temps Héroïques, a black slanted scribble-blotch surrounded by a sparse constellation of similar black and red shapes (suffice to say, the story isn’t about a bygone era when scribble-blotches were heroic) – to the downright nothing-to-do-with-anything Cubist mishmashes for the Salmon pieces mentioned above. For the title page of Aimé Césaire’s Corps Perdu, strikingly, Picasso aquatinted a sort of tribal mask that obscures all the words, except the word ‘MOT’, which remains branded on the mask-face’s forehead. And for Reverdy’s The Song of the Dead, too, Picasso’s lithograph goes around and over Reverdy’s own handwriting. The bold red daubed lines partly emphasize and partly obscure the words; by the time Picasso has finished with them, the dead are singing in a lush red jungle. In some cases he just drew zany borders around and offshoots from the words on a title page.
Certain subjects familiar from Picasso’s non-text-based work were also repeatedly transferred into these new situations – such as that of the artist and his model, erotic scenes and reflections on growing old – as well as combinations of the latter two, with men being thwarted by women, or not being up to the task. Picasso was clearly more than happy to explore his own concerns beside the texts. You don’t have to delve much into biography to find interesting the fact he chose to illustrate Myrrhina’s outfoxing of the lusty Kinesias (in Gilbert Seldes’ version of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata), given the story’s conflation of war-avoidance and sex-avoidance, and Picasso’s own well-known pacifism plus prurience. And again, in Plate III of his etchings for Balzac’s Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu, entitled Bull and Horse in the Arena, which bucks the trend by clearly depicting a textual moment –the question is why? The bull and the horse Picasso produced look like they could easily be a preparatory sketch for Guernica: the story goes that when Ambroise Vollard asked Picasso to illustrate Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu, Picasso was sufficiently taken with the story, and identified with the protagonist Frenhofer to such an extent, that he moved to the rue des Grands-Augustins in Paris, also the location of Frenhofer’s master’s studio in the story. And it was in this studio that Picasso was to spend the Second World War, producing, among other things, Guernica.
This impression is supported by the opinion of those, Picasso’s close friends and associates included, who thought that he read very little, in spite of his apparent familiarity with authors past and present. As John Golding put it in a 1994 review of ‘Picasso’s Góngora’ in The Independent: ‘I myself suspect he didn't open many of the books he talked about… [but] absorbed information through... the conversations of his writer friends and other intellectuals. Once, after an eloquent analysis of Bergson in relationship to his own portrait of Kahnweiler, he admitted to never having read him and to have picked it all up from his sitter.’
One of the exceptions that perhaps proves the rule is the version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses published by Albert Skira in 1931; the argument being that the clear link between the pictures and the text in this rare case was due to the fact that half the print run was produced for the American market.
The extent to which Picasso read the texts is, in a sense, not the point. For a viewer like me, unprepared, expecting just from the posters in the foyer some straightforwardly linked-to-the-text illustrations, the striking thing was how flagrantly tangential Picasso’s etchings, lithographs and linocuts were. I think this was what excited me and had me feeling thankful to be in the company of quiet, milling Bavarians – they weren’t going to make me feel weird for stalking from cabinet to cabinet, heart going, thoughts racing on the idea of someone, a master, so in tune with whatever brush, pencil or etching instrument he held between forefinger and thumb, sketching even as he read – almost like the stylus on a lie detector – and in his intuition of the words providing a rarely seen manifestation of their impact, even as they touched down on his synapses, bouncing straight back out onto the page. Registering the in-the-moment reading experience, as I thought.
My friend and his ex had left already –fifteen or twenty minutes before me. I don’t know what they talked about while they waited for me, maybe the fact that later on we were going to go and have a sauna at my friend’s ex’s gym.
What I’d like to place alongside these are ideas about the interval between a translated text and its original. I recently heard an interpreter describe her work as the attempt to provide a 'faithful echo' of the foreign language speaker's words – an unusually beautiful way to think about what a translator’s work is often judged on: it is a success if it also affords the illusion of not having occurred. Of the translator not having carried out that (also, I think, beautiful and delicate, sympathetic, imaginative, discriminating) work.
The following comes from Clive Scott's provocative essay “Retheorising the Literary in Literary Translation” in Translation: Theory and Practice in Dialogue (Continuum). He asks if “the literariness of translation is as much in the sense of journey, in this sense of languages trying to arrive in new places, new homes, as it is in achieved fluency”? and elsewhere disparages the norm of translation, the usual attempt at transparency, as a “process of substitution”, and “hygienic”. With Picasso’s approach in mind – the gap he opened up between a sort of source and a sort of target – could there be something gained in keeping that gap open? Rather than jamming it shut, sanding it down, so that it appears there was never any gap to begin with?
A gap or a seam, a weld point or a faultline! How beautiful a scar can be!
Were it possible to take Picasso's lead in these matters, might it mean permitting “the source text [to] expand”, (Scott again) “to absorb all that has accrued to it in the unfolding of time... a translation practice that is temporally and spatially ragged, heterochronic and multidimensional, and never done with reconfiguring the distance between source and target”?
A great, welcome gap between source and target! The action of the incision, not forgotten, not not celebrated! Not only a ‘faithful echo’, but the interval between the initial sound and the echo also traced, given body. Something – something – shown, between the words and their registration in the senses, between the sense and the word… But, practically, what would this entail?
I am as opposed to footnotes as anyone...
I remember Tim Robbins’ character in Robert Altman’s The Player calling his new girlfriend ‘a pragmatic anarchist’. And how she smiled.
I suppose what I am talking about might be having had a glimpse of the invisible (this might be what Picasso's 'representations' conjured), and having been excited by the possibility of prolonging its visibility. Maybe it is only the excitement of a writer who tries to pose as a translator from time to time; what happens when writing, between the idea and the word? In a way, is a writer ever asking anything but this question?
What would it be like to track, rather than rub out, a translator at work, say with some kind of refitted lie detector-like stylus? Would the results have anything like the same effect? Scott also talks about translation in musical terms – “I am undertaking remixes of some of the translations of Virgil, which themselves constitute remixes of the source text...” thinking of himself as a DJ, “explor[ing] the continuum between specific vocal effects and the multiple ways in which a mind inhabits a text as it reads” (my italics). This brings to mind the idea of a translation's tracks not indeed dusted over, but done in 3D, with laser lights, in a stadium, everyone going nuts... Maybe it’s enough to be excited by the glimpse.
When I did emerge from the exhibition, the Brandhorst’s lower ground floor was much busier than before. My friend and his ex were sitting on a square concrete stele, right in the middle, and artgoers were moving around them. As I approached, I remembered everything we had been talking about earlier – and my apprehensions about the weekend, which had been to do with potential complications between my friend and his ex, their re-entering intimacy (these had been dispelled by how they really did seem now to have become just friends); now, all this rushed back in. He was facing me as I came out, and she was behind him and to the side, on the stele’s next face, looking left...
‘Como te parece?’ she said – what did you think? I made some unexplanatory hand gestures – I had too much to say, too unformulated. I liked it! They both smiled. A bit of lunch was in order, we agreed, before sauna time.
Later on, or it might have been the next night, the three of us were walking through a residential area and it was raining again. We had come back to the subject of my friend’s current girlfriend, again. She had written something on her blog about all the things she imagined he was up to in Munich – we had been naked in the sauna (in Germany, you’re not allowed to not be naked in a sauna), but none of her worries were in fact anywhere near the mark. He and I had been sharing the spare room, y punto.
And then something happened, something I haven’t thought very much about since. But looking back at some photos on my desktop in the last couple of days, the moment came to mind. As we turned into her street my friend’s ex – after the two of us sympathizing, offering him advice, but becoming exasperated by the way he was relating his new girlfriend to us (if it’s really like this, I’d got to the point of saying, why are you even with her?), not seeing any of it hitting the mark – she also gave up, and said: ‘You just have to have an affair, don’t you? Isn’t that the only thing you can do?’ This she said in English. I’m certain no one my age (late twenties) in England would use the words ‘affair’, with its connotations of Brussels politicians, of kept mistresses, of another era when even infidelity was more formal. If I were speaking with just English friends, rather than one Spaniard living in Germany (her) and one half English-half Venezuelan (him), ‘affair’ I don’t feel would have come into play. Not that we didn’t understand what she meant, not that it was wrong. But it stood out. One of those formulations that, placed in slightly the wrong place, at an unexpected angle, rearranges everything else, briefly.
Tom Bunstead blogs at throwyourlaptopdownthestairs.